My ‘culture’ activity this week focussed on a singular historic event in London, which had an impact and knock-on effect on those times, which in some respects draws some parallels to the way things are today – and the topic is the ‘Siege of Sidney Street’.
Today, Sidney Street in Stepney E1 is just a normal road in the heart of east London, made up of mainly residential council housing/flats plus a few commercial buildings – but back in January 1911 it was the scene of the most extraordinary gun battle ever waged on the streets of London, where crowds of on-lookers and a young 36yr old Home Secretary by the name of Winston Churchill watched as Police, assisted by the Military, exchanged gun-fire for 6 long hours, with gun men holed up in a tenement block at 100 Sidney Street.
The lead up to the Sidney Street incident began a fortnight earlier when the Police disturbed a burglary taking place at a jeweller’s shop about a mile away in ‘Houndsditch’ EC3 in the City of London. Then the Houndsditch was a street full of retail shops mainly owned and run by Jewish immigrants – whereas today it is full of city corporate office blocks.
A neighbour living next door to the jewellers shop heard banging and drilling noises coming from the basement of the shop late on a Friday evening, which was extremely unusual for a Jewish Sabbath – and so alerted the City of London Police at their base in nearby Bishopsgate.
When the police arrived and attempted to gain entry, the robbers burst out of the shop shooting at the officers in attendance, killing 3 of them – Sgt Charles Tucker (47) – Sgt Robert Bentley (37) and Constable Walter Choat (34). The gang then scattered off down the Houndsditch in the direction of the Aldgate and Whitechapel districts.
Now – at that time, there was a lot of political and social unrest around the government’s management of immigration in the UK, an atmosphere that was particularly prevalent in the east end of London, where there was an influx of refugees from eastern Europe.
The general public were up in arms around the consequences of the 1905 Aliens Act, that they blamed for letting ‘undesirables’ into the country – and the various opposition political parties exploited this topic and the unrest, to the full. Emotive statements were regularly published in the daily papers – often targeting immigrants with comments such as “some of the worst alien anarchists and criminals who seek our too hospitable shores” – and overviews such as “the constant mollycoddling attitude towards criminals by the government, and certain so-called humanitarian sections of the general public” (these are actual extracts from The Times newspaper at those times).
Following the Houndsditch shootings of the 3 police officers – it suited the media machine to focus on these political issues, particularly as informants had indicated that these specific offenders were likely to be eastern European refugees, who frequent an anarchist ‘social club’ in Stepney E1
Police soon announced that one of the main suspects they were looking for in connection of the murders was one Peter Piaktow – a polish painter and decorated by trade, who was known locally as ‘Peter the Painter’.
Acting on a tip-off, police arrived at a rundown tenement housing block at 100 Sidney Street – where they were immediately met with gun fire from inside the house, as they attempted to gain access. The rest of the building was immediately evacuated and the police beat a retreat and surrounded the building.
The young Home Secretary ‘Winston Churchill’ was notified of the incident, and surprisingly for a politician, hurried down to the scene, out of (what he described later as) ‘a strong sense of curiosity and a need to keep matters in check’.
Upon his arrival, the media reported that he was bombarded with shouts and jeers from the increasing numbers of bystanders, with comments such as ‘who let all these immigrants in’.
Not to miss out on an opportunity to gain political kudos , and in an attempt to flush out these ‘anarchists and bring a prompt end to the siege Churchill authorised the deployment of 74 members of the Scots Guards stationed at the Tower of London – 35 members of the Royal Artillery plus 15 Royal Engineers – the first time the military had ever been called upon to support the constabulary.
Police and troops laying on newspaper placards in the middle of the road, and also crouching down in shop doorways and houses – kept up a steady exchange of fire with those holed up inside the house.
After 6 hours of continual shooting, a small cloud of smoke could be seen from one of the upstairs windows and very soon 100 Sidney Street was in flames.
However, the soldiers showed no mercy and kept up their bombardment. The fire brigade were called but Churchill refused to allow them to attend to the spread of the fire until such time there was no more gunfire coming from the house.
When the siege was finally over and the fire brought under control – police were able to enter the building, but only 2 bodies were found – those of Latvian petty criminals (not known anarchists) Fritz Svaars & William Sokolow – but ‘Peter the Painter’ was nowhere to be found, and it was assumed that he had managed to escape during the siege. Only 1 policeman was injured during the actual siege, but a fireman, District Officer Charles Pearson was fatally injured when a hearth stone fell on him as he entered the building.
From a media perspective, the siege was the very first time an incident had been filmed ‘live’ and then shown later that night, in a west end Cinema. The front pages of the following days newspapers also covered ‘live’ photographs of the siege ‘story’
From a policing perspective, this incident was the very first time officers had been murdered in cold blood whilst in the line of duty. Issues were even debated in Parliament as to whether our police should now be fully armed.
As a result of the Houndsditch killings and the following siege, there were changes to the weaponry used by police, as it was evident that the current police armoury was no match for modern european automatic weapons.
There are no plaques or landmarks in Sidney Street to commemorate this historic incident – however, there now stand 2 blocks of council flats that are named ‘Siege House’ and ‘Painter House’ – the latter causing considerable controversy when it opened in 2006, as it was thought that it commemorated ‘Peter the Painter’ and his role in history as an ‘anti-hero’.
The accompanying photos provide a journey of how this incident developed and concluded – which I hope you find interesting.